From time to time during discussions in our training on cultural differences, one individual asks, “doesn’t focusing on cultural differences perpetuate stereotypes or encourage us to make lazy generalisations?. Everyone is different so shouldn’t we just treat everyone as a unique individual?”.
It sounds very egalitarian and sensible and some people, often out of respect for diversity, do feel uncomfortable generalising about groups.
Unfortunately there are some problems with this.
Firstly cultural differences are one of the most widely researched areas of social science. The work of Hofstede and Trompenaars, and more recently the Globe Project have demonstrated measurable differences in consistent areas across very large sample international sizes
If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, have led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.
Most tellingly, if we just look at others as individuals, what lens do we view them through? If they behave differently to you, are they wrong? We need some lens to look through to make sense of differences of upbringing and social norms.
If someone is late is it rudeness or a normal preference for flexibility, what standards do we judge by?. If someone expresses their emotions very openly is this professional and passionate or childlike? It depends a lot on your culture.
When we compare individuals we are looking at a blend of culture, experiences and personality. Like an onion, it is only by unpeeling the layers that we can really understand someone.
Some behaviours may be explained by cultural differences, what is left may be personality. Without an understanding of culture we tend to judge everyone by our own local standards and norms.
The reality is that all cultural differences are relative, what we notice it was different from our own culture. Remember that any time you make an observation about someone from another culture its 50% about them and 50% about you.